Union threatens boycott of Foster Farms following COVID-19 outbreak

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The Merced County Health Department has ordered the Foster Farms poultry plant in Livingston to close by September 1 at 8 p.m., after a deadly outbreak of COVID-19.

Now many workers, faith-based activists, and union leaders are calling for a boycott of the company if certain conditions are not met.

Martha Vera is grieving the loss of her husband, who she says died from COVID-19 after working for Foster Farms for 27 years. Now she's demanding changes to keep other families from experiencing this same loss.

She shared her comments in Spanish, and a translator explained, "She's saying how many more people need to die to take action. She wants the company to protect all the workers."

Vera was one of several people who took part in a virtual news conference organized by United Farm Workers after more than 390 employees at the Livingston poultry plant tested positive for the virus, including eight who died.

United Farms Workers Vice President Erika Navarette said, "Their lives are more valued than a cut of meat or a food service contract."

The group is pledging to support a Foster Farms boycott if the company does not take several steps, including closing the plant as ordered by the county and providing more tesing and protective equipment.

The union is also calling for paid leave while the plant is closed, quarantine pay for those awaiting test results, and hazard pay of an additional two dollars per hour throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Faith in the Valley Deputy Director Andy Levine said, "I stand here today in solidarity with the workers in Livingston and across the Valley, and I would say really what the community and partners are calling for today is the bare minimum. Can Foster Farms do the bare minimum?"

Foster Farms has previously said it implemented comprehensive safety measures early in the pandemic, and the Vice President of Communications issued a new statement Monday saying the company is moving forward with the testing plan agreed to with the county health department and quote, "Our goal is to ensure that employees test free of COVID-19 so that when the plant reopens, there is the highest level of assurance of a clean slate." It also says employees who go to the facility for testing two times this week will be paid for each day the facility is closed.

The company released another statement just before 5 p.m. Monday saying in part, "Foster Farms, like all poultry producers, faced the near insurmountable challenge of continuing to bring its products to the family table, while protecting our employees. While we recognize that our efforts have not been sufficiently successful, this has not been for lack of effort nor motivated by financial gain. Since August 12, Foster Farms has already tested 2,900 workers, resulting in a less than 1% positive rate. While we are encouraged by these results, we are in agreement with the Merced County Department of Public Health (MCDPH) that additional testing is required."

It also says, "Foster Farms has been in ongoing Livingston Poultry Complex labor contract negotiations with the United Farm Workers union since September 2019. Foster Farms recognizes that employee illness and death from complications of COVID-19 cannot be tolerated and is fully committed to mitigating the risks of COVID as outlined with Merced County. We do not believe that misinformation that is the product of a labor dispute should be allowed to detract from our current COVID-19 protection efforts, and we remain open to entering into productive discussions with the union."
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